Promised Land (1988)

15 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

How many of us after we graduate high school turn out exactly the way we planned? How many of us remain the way we used to be in the good old days of high school? Not many, that’s for sure. There’s always that thing called the present that pushes us forward in life where we just have to carry on and realize that we’re not the same people we used to be. “Promised Land” is an indie drama that understands that and tells the story of two high school acquaintances—one of which has moved on, the other doesn’t want to.

The film begins at the last high school basketball game of the season and star Davey Hancock (Jason Gedrick) makes the winning shot. Hancock is going to college on an athletic scholarship, leaving his cheerleader girlfriend Mary (Tracy Pollan). But two years later, we see him as a police officer in his hometown and we learn that he was denied the scholarship to a better player. He was even less successful in his academics, and so he dropped out and moved back to town. Hancock still recalls his glory days of basketball and even plays around in the office with his co-worker Baines (Googy Gress), even though he makes sure Baines never scores (even when Baines does, fairly, Hancock calls foul). As for Mary, she’s going to college and plans to major in the arts. Hancock still likes to see her, but she is reluctant to continue a relationship with him since she is moving on with her life while Hancock is still stuck in the past. She may be successful than he’ll ever be.

Danny (Kiefer Sutherland) was the academic “nerd” with the nickname “Senator” because he was destined to become a successful politician. But now, he has become a drifter since he quit high school and moved to try a better life with a good job. Instead, he became a loser. His girlfriend Beverly (Meg Ryan) is a crazy young woman who is overbearing, wild, and unpredictable…Danny winds up marrying her. And when he does, Beverly just can’t stop laughing. Even though the trampy Beverly is a little more for Danny to handle, the two fit together because they are both lost souls looking to connect with each other.

The film goes back and forth between Danny’s story and Hancock’s. Even though Hancock’s tale is convincing enough to be grittily pathetic, a little of that goes a long way to the point where I didn’t really care that much for this true loser who just can’t go on through life. It’s the story featuring Danny and Beverly that is more interesting, as Danny plans to drive with Beverly back home to see his family on Christmas. Danny is as much a loser as Hancock, for different reasons, but you still care for him because he’s trying something new and not everything is working in his favor. And Beverly constantly makes Danny’s life complicated whenever she has an extreme idea, to the point where Danny is wondering if he’s with the right person and if he can tolerate her any longer. But as he realizes, he needs her to fill a void in his life—for better or worse.

There’s a lot of symbolism to be found in “Promised Land.” The production work is impressive with objects like hood ornaments, a statue with a broken wing, snow angels, the early chants in the last big game, etc. that indicate something coming. While this can become somewhat pretentious, I have to admit I admired it.

With only one exception, the acting is solid. Kiefer Sutherland delivers a good, convincing depth to his role—his scenes with his sickly father, nicely played by Oscar Rowland, are truly heartbreaking. Tracy Pollan does nice work as Mary. Googy Gress is more than comic relief as Hancock’s buddy. And Meg Ryan is joyfully effervescent as Beverly—she steals the show with her zaniness. But the one exception to an otherwise-strong cast is Jason Gedrick as Hancock. While he’s OK in his earlier scenes, he wears out his welcome as the film continues. When forced to carry an emotion, he’s pretty bland.

“Promised Land” leads to a tragic ending that I didn’t really buy the first time I watched it. But watching it again, I realized how everything was leading up to this, when you really think about it, inevitable payoff. In that way, it’s actually pretty damn effective and paints a good portrait of irony, frustration, and security in small-town life.

“Promised Land” is a well-acted, well-executed drama about believing in the American Dream, but have yet to see evidence of it. Maybe it’s there and they just didn’t look hard enough for it, or they just gave up on it because of their life experiences and their fears of failure that led to nothing. There are people like this in the world. “Promised Land” does a nice job at portraying them.

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